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The Life of My Dreams
I want my passions, not test scores, to guide my future
Margaret Rose Heftler
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One night, I was on the blogging website Tumblr, procrastinating about studying for a physics test, and feeling more and more anxious about the fact that I wasn’t studying and that I would fail. Suddenly I came across a quote that struck a chord with me. It read, “Get a job. Go to work. Get married. Have children. Follow fashion. Act normal. Walk on the pavement. Watch TV. Obey the law. Save for your old age. Now repeat after me: I am free.”

I am generally not a rebellious person. Most of the time I do what my parents—and society in general—expect of me: I work hard in school so I can get into a good college and create a life that others want for me, and that I think I want. It looks something like becoming a doctor, or a lawyer. Getting married, having some kids, moving into a nice apartment in the city or a house in the suburbs, preparing my kids to do it all over again.

Lately, though, I’m not sure if this is the life I actually want, or if it’s the life I’ve been told to want. I know that I want to be happy, that I want to leave the world better than how I found it in whatever small way that I can, that I want to feel what I am doing has meaning. But I don’t know if this path will get me there.

This is making me doubt the way I act, and have always acted, always following the rules. I genuinely do like school; I enjoy learning about the way the world works and I’ve always had an intense intellectual curiosity. Learning about history makes me understand the way the world got to be the way it is today, the way power dynamics have been shaped and precedents created. Reading literature helps me understand the human condition, myself, and my own emotions. But lately, my experience at school has felt cheapened.

Striving Without Contentment

It seems that all of the work I put into my classes and studying for the SAT just winds up as letters and numbers which will determine what college I go to. The experience of learning the material doesn’t matter so much in this process. It makes my schoolwork seem flatter, even when the material we are reading and the discussions we are having are interesting and rich.

The emphasis on grades over learning makes it seem like my education is preparing me to go to college, get some normal, socially acceptable job, and live an average life. I’m not sure where the meaning comes into that equation. It seems more like treading water, focusing on earning enough money to stay afloat but never really stepping back and wondering why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I think of all the hours I spend doing pre-calculus problems, and wonder if I’m wasting my time. Maybe I should’ve been outside instead, or working on something I do enjoy, like writing a poem or reading a good book. I tell myself that I am working now in order to enjoy my life later, but what if “later” never comes? Reading about how recent college graduates, regardless of what college they attended, are having difficulty finding jobs and moving back in with their parents causes me to doubt my single-minded drive toward getting accepted at a good college.

Even the idea of getting a job and becoming a full adult freaks me out. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, and the prospect of becoming just another person trying to get by in the world, as opposed to achieving something exceptional, scares me. I don’t want to spend my whole life running, never knowing towards what.

When does it end? First it’s towards the best grades and test scores, then the best college, then graduate school. Even when I’m done with schooling, it’s striving towards the most impressive job, the best salary, the next promotion, never being content with what I have already earned.

Recently I was watching the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. There’s a scene where the boss of a real estate company is motivating his workers to sell more real estate. He says that he doesn’t really care about his workers as people, that all he wants them to do is “close”—sell more real estate. That was their value. This made me wonder about my place in the world, too. Am I only valued by society for what I produce, rather than for who I am?

What Defines Me?

In English class, we are reading the book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. One aspect of the book is the way the young narrator’s dreams for the future are based on positive reinforcement from the college he is attending. He gets his entire identity from the prestige of his education and from what other people think of him, but he is invisible, nobody really “sees” him as a full human being. Reading the book has made it clear to me that I don’t want to rely on grades or other people’s assessments to tell me I’m intelligent, to define who I am and whether I’m worthy.

image by YC-Art Dept

Even though I doubt the path I appear to be going down, I’m also filled with anxiety about not getting into a good school. I don’t want to let down my grandma, my parents or myself. I want to go to a place where I can really grow as a person and study what interests me with other people who have a true thirst to learn. These contradictory desires can be paralyzing.

Most of all, I’m scared I may not be able to achieve my dreams of changing the world in some significant way. I look at the world today, and especially at American society, and see a lot of injustice and oppression that seems to never get better. Racism and sexism still hold many people back, income inequality is greater than it has been for a while, and the American dream is becoming harder to achieve.

I Want to Make the World Better

I get especially mad when I look at the education system in this country and see the inequalities that still run rampant. I am lucky that I attend a private school, because in the public school system, it seems like students are treated more like robots to be controlled and tested than learners that are allowed to make mistakes and have different kinds of strengths.

I try to encourage young people’s creativity at my internship at Writopia Lab, an after school creative writing program for kids. But I see that the students I work with are often afraid of expressing themselves at first, and coming up with their own, original ideas. I hope in the future I can do something to change the way schools view their students, but I don’t know if it’s a feasible career for me. Right now, I doubt whether I can have a big impact. The world’s problems are so overwhelming that I don’t know how big change can happen.

It is more likely that I will be average than exceptional. This is a hard prospect for me to deal with. Overall, I’m worried about living a boring, mediocre life of quiet desperation, which is what many adults seem to do. They work jobs they dislike, marry partners that, over the years, they don’t passionately love but simply tolerate. They just try to get through the day without too much conflict and pay the bills on time.

What Will Shape My Life?

Last year, we read the play Waiting for Godot in English class. One of the characters says, “I can’t go on!” and the other replies, “That’s what you think.” Though I feel like I can’t go on spending so much time doing things that seem pointless, I continue to do so. Another line repeated in the play is “nothing to be done.” I don’t want that feeling of helplessness to shape my life.

My dad once gave me some advice when I was talking to him about studying for the SAT, which seemed good at the time. He said that, in life, while you have to play the game, you shouldn’t put your heart into everything. I have to study for the SAT and work hard in order to get into a college that I feel will be the most intellectually exciting and vibrant, but I shouldn’t use my scores to gauge whether or not I am intelligent or successful.

The more I thought about this, though, the more it confused me. I understood the way it related to the SAT, but to life in general? Why bother playing the game if your heart isn’t in it? A total separation between who you are and what you are doing just seems like a way to go crazy.

Cutting Through the Confusion

Something that helps me reconcile these contradictions is recognizing what gives my life meaning right now. There are times when I’ll be sitting in my room, doing SAT math problems and hating every minute of it, feeling trapped, brooding over the purpose of this work, and worrying that I’ll never do well enough. Then, I’ll go to my internship at Writopia lab and help the kids work on their stories. I’ll listen to their enthusiasm, their imaginative ideas, and their excitement at being able to express themselves, and all of my angst disappears. I feel like I’m doing something good, and important, and, yes, meaningful. I will feel like I am having an impact on the world, even if it is so tiny.

I might be writing an essay for English class, stuck and frustrated and worried about how I’m going to fail, and then dance around my room crazily for a half hour, return to the essay and have a breakthrough. I could be writing a poem and finally get the right word to describe what it is I’m trying to say, the perfect image to convey the meaning I want. It’s these glimmers of transcendence that make me happy, like I’m living my life to the fullest. It is in these moments that I feel free.

I feel most whole when I am doing things that are most closely tied to who I feel myself to be, even if I’m not sure who that is yet. Doing something I love and feel is useful to the world gives me purpose. I hope I will be able to find this down the road, in some form. Maybe through teaching, or as a writer or a journalist, I can make an impact. I still have faith that the work I do now, even the work I am not interested in, will help me get there. By working hard on the more tedious parts of my college applications, I’m ultimately helping myself get into the college that will best prepare me for a career that will give my life purpose. But I am still not completely sure where I’m going.

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(NYC-2013-09-07)

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